Sonido y baile – Performing Afterlives of Cuba, ca. 1956

Friday, May 3, 2024 | 6PM EST
Center for Ballet and the Arts Studio, 16 Cooper Square

Join us for an evening of original creative works inspired by Música de los cultos africanos en Cuba (Music of the African Cults in Cuba), a remarkable audio archive of Afro-Cuban sacred music, recorded in the mid-1950s by Josefina Tarafa in collaboration with Cuban ethnographer Lydia Cabrera. Approaching the historical recordings (and the rich traditions they represent) in sound and movement, the artists will offer intimate interpretations of the sounds, traditions, and people documented in Música de los cultos. Collectively, the artists and their new works-in-progress attempt to move away from literal representation, deconstructing the historical recordings, refracting them through formal, symbolic, and literal forms of abstraction that remain firmly grounded in the ethics and aesthetics of Afro-Atlantic tradition.

Participating artists will include composer/percussionist Javier Díaz, singer/composer David Oquendo, dancer/choreographer Beatrice Capote, and Mellon Scholar in Residence David Font-Navarrete.

David Font-Navarrete will present a multimedia performance — “Dibujando sonidos sagrados” — that synthesizes sound and visual art. Employing audiovisual techniques that create real-time feedback between layers of archival sounds and abstract drawings, the performance transforms the recordings into meditative works on glass, wood, and paper. Javier Díaz will premiere a new composition — “Dialectos del tiempo” — inspired by the Música de los cultos collection. Díaz’s piece, dedicated to the virtuoso Cuban musician David Oquendo and performed as a duet with him, approaches the historical recordings as musical information employing bits and pieces of the recordings as fragments of language, rhythmic time, and aural textures. Díaz will also perform two other of his solo works for percussion and electronic music track — “Meta” and “Canciones Para Percusión y Música Electrónica” — inspired by traditional Afro-Cuban religious music. Díaz will close his part of the program with his arrangement of a traditional prayer for Asojano-San Lázaro, featuring David Oquendo on guitar. Beatrice Capote will present new solo choreography in dialogue with “Dialectos del tiempo” (by Díaz and Oquendo) and excerpts from the Música de los cultos collection.


In the 1940s and 1950s, Lydia Cabrera and Josefina Tarafa conducted collaborative ethnographic research on Afro-Cuban sacred arts in Matanzas and Havana. Their work together — with Cabrera as writer/ethnographer and Tarafa as photographer/recordist — is enshrined in some of Cabrera’s best-known books (El Monte and La laguna sagrada) and a massive, lesser-known collection of audio recordings: Música de los cultos africanos en Cuba (Music of the African Cults in Cuba). Recorded shortly after the publication Cabrera’s magnum opus El Monte (1954), the Música de los cultos collection of multimedia materials originally published independently as a boxed set of phonograph LPs and liner notes, printed in Cuba and distributed privately in a single limited edition, ca. 1956. More specifically: the collection consists of 14 LP discs containing over 11 hours of audio recordings, along with liner notes (by Cabrera) and photos (by Tarafa).

The Música de los cultos recordings — the only ones in Cabrera and Tarafa’s prolific archive of Afro-Cuban culture — are saturated by the musical and linguistic genius of priest-artists for which Cabrera became a documentary medium, and the sounds themselves are arguably the pinnacle of her life-long efforts to produce what she described in her magnum opus El Monte as “material for specialists which has not passed through the dangerous filter of interpretation” (2023 [1954]). Given its scope and quality, the collection is arguably the single most robust multimedia archive of Afro-Cuban sacred music traditions in the mid-20th century. Yet it remains unclear in which year the Música de los cultos recordings were made, when the discs were pressed, and how many copies of the boxed set were produced, and only a few institutions hold complete physical editions of the original boxed set in their repositories.